Tells the Bosses We’re Coming:
A New Action Plan for
Workers in the Twenty-First Century
256 pages, $26 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-856-5
By Shaun Richman
Reviewed by Anneta Argyres for New Solutions
When I first became active in a union, I attended a workshop for prospective union stewards – those stalwart folks who endeavor to uphold and protect the hard-won language in the union’s collective bargaining agreement. The trainer took us through the definition of a grievance, its steps and timeline, and the steward’s role in the whole process. Then she said: “But never allow the contract to get in the way of a good argument.” These were revolutionary words, too seldom incorporated into the trainings of union advocates. She was basically telling us that while we must know and understand the rights we have won, we cannot let those rights stop us from fighting for more. These words have guided me over the intervening quarter of a century in my work as a union steward, elected union officer, and labor educator.
Shaun Richman, in his recent book, Tell the Bosses We’re Coming, delivers the very same lesson to the whole of organized labor when he urges us not to allow the boss’s law to become our ideology.
Through a mix of reflection on personal experiences and a review of history, Richman exposes the “trap” that has been built into U.S. labor law to limit the power of workers and unions. Understanding how the current system was built—what compromises were made and what business interests won—is essential if we are ever going to develop a plan to get out of the trap. Richman reminds us that labor’s roots were in fighting against involuntary servitude, not in bargaining over corporate rights or protecting the smooth functioning of commerce. Like the author, I have all too often heard unionists squash the righteous anger of workers with the pragmatic response that ‘the boss is allowed to do that.’ Such responses not only drain away all of the workers’ energy; it also limits the scope of worker power to the narrow confines of what is established under current labor law. Richman’s examination of how the current labor system was developed in the U.S. lays bare the truth that this was not the system that labor wanted. Instead, it was the system that the bosses would tolerate. So, he asks, why are we defending it?
….Don’t read Tell the Bosses We’re Coming expecting to find a “how to” list of the steps you must take to build power in your union or you’re likely to be disappointed. Instead, read it to be challenged to explore the ways your union, your Central Labor Council, your state federation, and the whole labor movement is narrowing the avenues for worker power in the United States. And then start working to broaden them…..
The full review, in NEW SOLUTIONS: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy, is forthcoming from Sage Publishing